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Railsea by China Miéville

In Railsea, China Miéville (Del Rey Books, Random House, 2012) once again has us on a train, this time in pursuit of moldywarpes: vast molelike creatures that burrow through the earth at high speed and break through the top soil like a Cetacea jumping through the air. Captain Naphi is in charge of the train named Medes as it travels ever further south in pursuit of prey. Her ultimate goal is the great ivory moldywarpe, Mocker-Jack, a burrowing signifier that doesn’t want its meanings parsed as it escapes so distantly into opaque diggery that its silence becomes a taunt to the pursuing Captain. In each hunt, the crew is supported by a spotter in the crow’s nest, and motorised carts that carry harpoonists and soil-anchors. Once the harpoon hits, the anchors prevent the moldywarpe from going too deep. When finally killed, the body is pulled on board, cut up, and processed for food and all other useful parts. Interestingly, none of the crew like the idea of touching the ground. It’s not that the soil is literally a poison, but there’s an aversion to touching it directly. Which is not surprising when we see what can happen to those who, like Unkus Stone, incautiously step on to the surface.


Sham ap Soorap is the newbie on his first voyage, learning the ropes of the Railsea with its endless, countless rails, confusingly not all of which are the same gauge. Navigation for the train is a major problem with the Captain always looking for switching or cross-over points between the multiplicity of ways forward. Juggling the points while in motion is also a tricky business with riders between the carriages constantly fighting to prevent the train from breaking up or rolling over.


We need not beat about the bush here. Railsea is a form of homage to Moby Dick by Herman Melville which is, by those who bother to put together lists, high up on the rankings of “greatest novels of the nineteenth century”. Having had so long to think about this novel, critics and reviewers have a number of interpretations for the meaning of the whale and its pursuit by the obsessive Captain Ahab. However, it doesn’t benefit us to dwell on the past. With Captain Naphi and her prosthetic arm driving the train, it’s a whole new game. It all starts with the language which is, to put it mildly, exuberant & shows little respect for convention. Notice the ampersand. This is typical of a willingness to embrace difference in the way the story is told. More interestingly, the work blends neologisms with recastings of old words.

China Mieville at his letter box in the borough of Pandora


Now we come to the notion of the railsea itself. When you cannot trust the ground on which you walk, the only solution is to cover that ground with a network of paths to keep you safe and allow you to travel from A to B. Over time, there’s such a steady accretion of tracks that large tracts of the world are wrapped in a kind of protective layer. Think of it that sidings become marshalling yards fanning out across the ground. Nothing is ever taken up or replaced. The growth of the tracks is like a living process with “wild rails” spreading “out of control”. The result is that, so long as you play by the rules, you can travel safely where the soil layer is thin. But the moment you press out on to the deep soil, there are unseen dangers lurking. At any time, a moldywarpe may emerge and disrupt your meaning. Then there’s the question as to the nature of the upsky which seems to have its own ecology of dangerous beasts. Indeed, if you climb through Cambellia, it’s rumoured you pass though the atmosphere shifts and find cities of the dead (it’s like Latin roots). You’d have to be an “explorer” to want to go there. More importantly, we begin to see that this world has been through the Heavy Metal Age and the Plastozoic when visitors from other worlds and times abandoned their trash and animals that turned predatory. As an idle thought, English has had words and philosophical ideas dumped on it from other languages. Do we native speakers not struggle to incorporate the meaning of these words and ideas into our own speech? When trying to find the best way to say what we mean, it’s like switching an engine from one track to the next in the marshalling yards. As it goes forward, it collects new carriages, i.e. words are joined together into new sentences, until we get to the full meaning we intend to convey. When we are satisfied, we send the complete train out.


Yes, yes, as Captain Naphi might say, I need to expedite this review relevance-ward. This is a story about humanity cast adrift as a ferromaritime people. The railsea connects and separates all lands, allows movement back and forth between solid ground. How better to capture the significance of that recursive motion than by using the ampersand in the text. But the railsea is also about the philosophy of meaning. It’s semiotics in action as we swing back and forth between many possible meanings for any given signifier while scrabbling over the always fragile surface of the communication media. The whole book is a game played with and through language. It taunts us with the similarities to Moby Dick. Arguably the great original is about the pursuit of God. Whereas this is more opaque, being about the pursuit of meaning which may be in a particular signifier, a group of signified or, like Douglas Adams, we may be chasing the meaning of “everything”.


Slightly changing the subject, as individuals, we all give meaning to our lives through the hopes and ambitions we have. Scaled up, this explains how societies work, with ever larger groups sharing common goals. Yet without reliable communication mechanisms, how does society remain cohesive. How does its volksgeist emerge? There must be a grundnorm or two on the horizon to catch everyone’s attention. There must be spoken and unspoken means for transmitting meanings, otherwise societies crumble back into the anarchy of individuals without common purpose.


Let’s now come into the open. As a metaphor for semiotics, the reality of Railsea is as a patchwork of all the possible ways we can communicate with each other. The primary communicators fall into different groups: those who make their lives on the railsea may be looking for salvage, like archaeologists seeking meaning from the past, or they are hunters who supply intellectual nourishment to the masses through the pursuit of their individual philosophies, or they are explorers who look to the future, seeking out where they should go next in this gallimaufryan coagulum of mixed-up oddness, or they are like pirates of capitalism who want to beat everyone else to the treasure or to get paid. Perhaps, in the end, it will come down to the young, for they have the imagination to see what might be just beyond the horizon. It might be their philosophy to pursue their dreams across the sea until there are no more horizons to cross.


Railsea is a wonderfully inventive book, full of unexpected delights and insights. At a superficial level, it’s about a Captain’s pursuit of the great ivory moldywarpe called Mocker-Jack, but when you understand the metaphors, it’s really about young people’s pursuit of the unattainable, no matter what the dangers or the fun you can have on the way.


For all the reviews of books by China Miéville see: The City & the City, Embassytown, and Kraken.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


This novel won the 2013 Locus Award.


  1. May 8, 2012 at 4:27 am

    I adore China Mieville, loved The Scar and Embassytown, can’t wait to read this new one!

    • May 8, 2012 at 4:36 am

      It’s intellectually robust and great fun! I hope you enjoy it!

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